Anglo-French forces had begun landing at the Greek port of Salonika on 5 October 1915. The troops were sent to provide military assistance to the Serbian forces that had recently been attacked by combined German, Austro-Hungarian and Bulgarian armies. The intervention came too late to save Serbia and after a brief winter campaign in severe weather conditions on the Serbian frontier (in which 65th Infantry Brigade participated – see below), the Anglo-French forces found themselves withdrawn back into Macedonia and northern Greece. At this point the British advised that the troops be withdrawn from the theatre. The French, with Russian, Italian and Serbian backing, still believed that something of strategic importance could be gained in the Balkans, and Britain maintained its force as part of the coalition.
The British Official History of the campaign in Salonika describes a phase of fighting known as the “Retreat from Serbia”. French forces had advanced north from Salonika into southern Serbia during November 1915, assisted by the British 10th (Irish) Division, but in terrible weather, greatly reduced by sickness among the troops, and increasingly harassed by Bulgarian forces, a withdrawal soon commenced. On 7 December 1915, the battalions of 65th Infantry Brigade began to arrive in the area, having been ordered to support the Irish units.
The battalion goes into position
By 8 December, the 9th (Service) Battalion of the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster Regiment) and the 14th (Service) Battalion of the King’s (Liverpool Regiment) had reached Čaušli. This is approximately 8 miles from the lakeside town of Doiran. It can be seen in the map below, just above the red text “29 Bde”. At this point the battalions were placed under temporary tactical command of Brigadier-General R. S. Vandeleur, 29th Infantry Brigade of 10th (Irish) Division. The battalions were ordered to move to take up the front line between Čaušli and the Pazarli-Dorutli track. The next two days were relatively quiet.
French units and part of the 10th (Irish) Division were now in retreat in the area to the north west of the brigade’s position, the Bulgarians having broken their line in the area of Kosturino. Orders arrived for further withdrawals to take place. During the afternoon and evening of 11 December, the 9th King’s Own, which was on the left of the brigade’s line and nearest to Čaušli, came under some long-range artillery fire and French officers arrived to reconnoitre the area as their orders were to relieve the brigade. Soon enough, brigade headquarters reported that the relief had taken place, and all was quiet.
“A” Company is cut off and surrounded
But this was not completely true. Three of the companies of the 9th King’s Own had indeed been relieved and were now marching to the rear, but “A” Company found no French troops coming to relieve them and stayed where they were. This was completely in accordance with the British Field Service Regulations and all of their training. Finally, at 12.45am on 12 December 1915 the company began to withdraw – only to unexpectedly run into a much larger Bulgarian force that had managed to get in behind the battalion’s former position. The diaries and Official History report that it was not at first clear whether this force was French or Bulgarian, but sadly few men of “A” Company managed to get away and nine were killed, but the majority were taken prisoner. The nine men who lost their lives have no known graves: they are commemorated at the Doiran Memorial to the Missing.
The brigade was then soon ordered to return south, and the battalion spent the months of winter and spring in the “Birdcage Line” in the vicinity of Daudli.
The dead of “A” Company:
Private 13528 Harrop, William Henry
Private 13449 Holmes, Samuel (aged 20)
Private 16599 Kaveney, George (36)
Private 14113 Mason, Edward (23)
Lance Corporal 14255 Pask, George Albert (28)
Serjeant 13325 Simms, Robert (20)
Private 16408 Stockley, James (21)
Private 16628 Trippier, John (18)
Private 18088 Wilkinson Alfred
The missing, listed in the “Times of 22 January 1916.
Note that the men who lost their lives were initially listed as such.